Complete with a red carpet and floor-length gowns, our first annual Unity Gala celebrated social justice and honored members of the Lesley community for their work to advance diversity and inclusion.
Students, faculty and staff donned formal wear for the April 28 event at Washburn Hall, which was decked out with a photo booth and music from DJ Master Jay of 97.7 FM.
“We wanted to create something that honors all of our students,” said Maritsa Barros, director of the Urban Scholars Initiative (USI), which hosted the event along with the Multicultural Affairs and Student Inclusion Office (MASI), and the Center for the Adult Learner (LCAL). “We also wanted to recognize student leadership and accomplishments.”
Barros, along with MASI Director Amarildo "Lilu" Barbosa, described the gala as a new tradition and an opportunity to shine a light on faculty, staff and students who have encouraged unity and equality on campus.
Unity Gala awards
Five individuals were honored for their work, each of whom was described and introduced by a presenter.
Expressive therapies professor Dr. Kelvin Ramirez, also a Lesley alumnus, won the Social Justice Advisory Award, which is given to a faculty or staff member who has been an ally for cultural and identity based student clubs, particularly students involved in the Black Lives Matter movement and graduate student organization Allied Against Oppression. President Jeff Weiss presented the award and praised Dr. Ramirez’s work on the Black Lives Matter movement on campus and in the Diversity Council of the Graduate School of Arts and Social Sciences.
“This person doesn’t quit,” Weiss said. “He’s always keeping everyone aware of issues surrounding race and inequality in a phenomenally engaging and constructive way.”
Undergraduate art student Mosheh Tucker took home the Social Activism through the Arts Award. Barbosa announced the award, describing him as a “risk taker and freedom fighter” whose artwork is “unapologetic, bold and unflinching.”
Graduate student Ben Blair received the Foundations Leadership Award for his efforts with self-work and relationship building as critical to creating community and a spirit of inclusion, from the Black Lives Matter movement to union rallies.
Graduate student and Black Lives Matter supporter Hythia Phifer won the Student Impact Award for helping students from historically marginalized communities create spaces for their voices to be heard in student-based arenas and in the university overall.
“I wouldn’t be standing here if it wasn’t for people like Hythia,” Barbosa said.
Recognizing Selase Williams, a champion for unity
The final award of the night went to Provost Selase Williams, who will retire at the end of the school year. Williams, who was instrumental in the formation of the MASI office, received the Community Leader Award for inspiring social change on campus and beyond.
Addressing the gala goers, Williams delivered the event keynote, telling his own story of growing up in a blue-collar Illinois family. Although he was told he wasn’t cut out for college, Williams enrolled in a community college, ending his first semester with a dismal 1.3 GPA. He almost quit, but after a summer of hard labor, college looked like a much better option, Williams recalled.
He eventually matriculated at the University of Wisconsin where he majored in linguistics, later earning his master’s and doctorate.
“Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t do what you want to do,” he said. “If this poor little colored boy from Waukegan, Illinois can do this, so can you.”
Following Williams’s speech, Barbosa and Barros announced that next year’s event and those thereafter would be named the Selase Williams Unity Gala.
“[He’s] the master man with the master plan who set us up for unity on campus,” Barros said.
In addition to awards, the night was also an opportunity to honor the students in the audience who will graduate on May 20. Each student was recognized and presented with a symbolic cord or stole to wear at graduation.
After the event, Tucker said the gala was something the university needs.
“I feel this gala did well in acknowledging some of the strongest and influential minds here at Lesley, and it was so refreshing being around so many other people of color,” he said. “I saw a kind of unity I’ve never seen at this school.”
President Weiss agreed that the event was an important one for diversity on campus, though he said more work needs to be done.
“I’m not suggesting we don’t have miles to go,” Weiss said. But, “I’m proud of the work that leaders do here every day.”